There's a bite in the air, Jensen thinks to himself with a rueful smile. His breath doesn't steam, but he tastes the cold as he inhales with deliberation. It tingles like menthol, or the bright balm of peppermint, neither of which does much for him these days.
The city can never decide what it wants to be in February. Fake flowers and blossom-pink hearts pasted everywhere, yet the night sky spits snow to accumulate in sooty corners, and people hurry their huddled shoulders down the sidewalks towards shelter. They don’t look up or acknowledge each other, hardly aware of their surroundings, barely noticing Jensen in his thick pea coat and wool hat as he trails them down a pot-holed side street, sucked into the shadows like a secret.
They might give pause because Jensen has soft green eyes that wrinkle at the corners and catch snowflakes in their lashes. Most muggers aren't casually handsome, well-groomed and smiling, so they seldom note his paleness, or listen to that part of their lizard brain hissing in warning.
“My phone died; do you have the time?” It's so simple and uncomplicated, and it works without fail. They glance down to pull out their phone, and suddenly they're on their backs in the dark with a leather glove sealing their mouth and nose, no air to scream. There's a flicker of dire realization when Jensen twists their jaw to one side and drops to their throat and their carotid artery pops under his razor teeth, but only a flicker. Something in the magic, in the juice that has kept him undead for nigh a hundred years, acts as an anesthetic and it takes but a heartbeat before they go lax under his weight, staring up at the rooftops with a prey's dewy eyes.
He's gotten it down to a science. The chase, the hunt, the … disposal. He keeps to the larger cities and doesn't stay in one place for long. He pays cash. Never leaves a trail. Never forms bonds (except for the odd witch or haunt that manages to suss him out). Never makes it a habit of visiting the same place on the regular.
Jensen chalks it up to ennui. You don't live as long as he has without some well-earned weariness. There's this all-night joint half a dozen blocks from his apartment that Jensen finds distractingly compelling in its ordinariness. In how bedraggled and unremarkable it is. The fluorescent lighting doesn’t work properly, which offers him a modicum of cover, but mostly, no one in the place gives so much as two shits. If you've found The Grill Diner and didn't side-eye its unclever name or yellowed windows, you deserved an honor-among-thieves welcome.
It's overly warm and always smells of french fries with an underscore of disinfectant. At 3 am, there might be one other lost soul hovering over a Coke and a patty melt in a squeaky vinyl booth. Jensen prefers a seat at the end of the counter; he can keep an eye on the front door and tiny kitchen through its serving hatch—where the short-order cook, Mitch, glares out from under heavy brows—and Jensen knows there's an emergency exit past the unisex bathroom in the back.
Lonesomeness certainly isn't the sole purview of the living, though Jensen's gotten good at self-reliance over the years, and telling himself this is the best compromise for the least amount of harm … a balance between his personal safety and the safety of the world around him. He could find more of his Kind, traipse back down to New Orleans or over to Hollywood, but he knows. Knows. It had been far too easy, sitting on that throne at the top of the food chain with them, wallowing in death and plenty, to end up glutted and feral and despising himself.
And so it is that a slushy mid-Western Wednesday night, or morning depending on your slant, finds Jensen sitting at the end stool of the greasy spoon, hands loosely clasped on the chipped Formica in front of him. He's scrubbed his cuticles clean of any stain of the evening's misadventures, and waits patiently for the third-shift cashier who usually works the counter.
But Jared is nowhere to be seen, and Jensen looks over at Mitch, who's staring out from the kitchen balefully. With an eye roll, the cook disappears and circles around behind the counter, wiping his hands on a dirty apron. He grabs a mug and thumps it down in front of Jensen, filling it with tarry coffee.
“Kid's running late. He'll be here,” Mitch mumbles by way of greeting.
“Okie doke,” Jensen says cheerfully, because he knows it'll get a glare in return. Mission accomplished. Mitch skulks back to the grill.
Snow continues to plummet in fat clumps outside the window, caught in the dirty glow of streetlamps and neon. The building's heater kicks on and rumbles almost meditatively. Jensen drums his fingertips to the beat of some poprock song from the early 70's as it crackles over the radio that sits atop the ice machine. The tang of chopped onion drifts from the kitchen and he remembers what it used to taste like on the back of this tongue, dozens of years ago ... of hurricanes and jambalaya and the comfort of humidity settling on his skin. His fingers slow their restless drumming as the memories creep up from the past, and his gaze loses focus, drifting into the misplaced daydream, but he's jolted back into winter as the diner's front door opens. A blast of cold air hits his face and Jared crashes inside, already grinning an apology.
“It's a bitch out there, sorry, man,” he says loudly, for Mitch's sake, shaking snow from his raggedy, home-cut hair. He's taller than most, taller even than Jensen, with tattoos coiling up his neck, dimples in the hollows of his cheeks, and enough nervous energy to terrify cats. He vanishes into the back and returns a few moments later, having shed his enormous coat but not his boots, which thump and squish. Jensen watches him take a quick survey of the empty room before he settles a look at the end of the counter, and Jensen forgets New Orleans again.
“Shitty night, huh?” Jared says, tying a plain white apron around his waist, low-slung like his jeans. His t-shirt is plain and white too, v-necked down to a sweep of throat and bony sternum. Not that Jensen is looking, mind you.
“Man's gotta eat,” Jensen quips.
Jared has turned to busy himself with dumping out the old coffee to start a new pot when he pauses, glancing up from under his hair. “You never do.”
Touché. Jensen is vaguely annoyed with himself. “Have you tried the food here?”
Mitch coughs. Jared and Jensen exchange smirks.
“Name tag,” Jensen reminds him, and Jared rolls his eyes before fishing it out of his back pocket. He plucks his shirt away from his chest to pin it in place.
“So. What's dragging you out tonight? If you ain't gonna eat?” Jared is collecting half-empty salt and pepper shakers as he works his way down the counter, away from Jensen. The kid's hands are broad and long-fingered, like he hasn't grown into them yet. He could play a mean piano with that spread. Dixieland. Ragtime. Classical would probably bore him.
“Had to walk a neighbor's dog,” Jensen lies. “Since I was already bundled up and moving around, thought I'd stop by for the glowing company and witty banter.”
“What kind of dog?”
“I don't know. The kind that weighs ten pounds and barks like it owns the world? That kind.”
Jared pulls a face. “Fuck those guys. I like big dogs.”
You would, Jensen muses. He'd had a dog once, a deerhound, but that relationship had ended poorly after Jensen had been turned. The dog—Artemis—scenting the blood and hunger on his breath, promptly ran away. Good thing, because in those early days, Jensen couldn't hardly trust himself not to eat her for breakfast. Animals in general didn't do well around his Kind. Though maybe someday he'd try to take in a cat. Something that could come and go as it pleased, and might not mind being in the company of another predator. Something that would pretend to listen to him on those nights when he coveted a heartbeat.
“Yeah, me too,” Jensen says.
Topping off the shakers, Jared works from habit, brushing spilled salt onto the floor with callous disregard for superstition. “What do you do during the day? If you don't mind me asking. I mean, you can tell me it's none of my goddamned business if you want.”
“No no, it's fine. Banking. Financial planning.”
“Yeah? Portfolio construction? Estate planning? Tax optimization?”
“Cost basis and gain/loss tracking, actually.”
“Feel free to shut up any time,” Jensen says.
“You don't like your job?”
Jared hasn't looked up from his side-work, but Jensen can feel the tease in his voice, and apparently he knew enough about money management to cause trouble. “You can't seriously be interested in all this …”
“Eh. You just don't look like a banker to me.”
“What's a banker supposed to look like?”
“Ten pounds of boring in a five pound suit.” At this, Jared flicks him a grin. It's infectious, an open invitation to poke back.
“Ay, stop annoying the customers, Padalecki,” Mitch barks from the kitchen, but there's no real ire to it.
Jared sets about returning the shakers to their spots on the counter before grabbing a clean mug and a dented, commercial-grade carafe, full of steaming coffee. “He loves me,” Jared stage-whispers, as he swaps out Jensen's cold, untouched cup for a fresh one.
Mitch responds with a one-fingered salute.
Who does love you, Jared … Padalecki? Jensen surrenders to wonder, in a moment of careless melancholy. Perhaps the kid has parents in the suburbs, who drive a hybrid and cluck their tongues at this phase of fresh adult rebellion. Maybe they've kicked him out for disagreeable relations with other boys, or they're pretending it's just a thing, like dinosaurs or invisible friends or refusing to eat vegetables. It would certainly be too much to ask that he be a ward of the state, released from official responsibility by aging out of the system.
Winter and the sounds of traffic flare as a couple bustles into the diner, and both he and Jared look up. Working girls, though neither may, in fact, be in possession of a vagina.
Jared gives Jensen a contrite smile and turns away, greeting the customers.
Staring down at his own silhouette in the coffee (because that whole “vampires don't have reflections in mirrors” thing is absolute garbage but hey, let the food source keep thinking that), Jensen’s thoughts wander again. What if this boy—who works all night and mars his pretty features with ink and sunless dark circles under his eyes—is as rootless as Jensen himself?
Another straggler comes in, and it's clear the bars have closed and the late-nighters are starting to surface, so Jensen buttons up his coat, tucks a twenty under the mug, and slips out to return home, alone.
Snow is starting to pile up in earnest, covering the windshields of parked cars. The courtyard of his apartment building sits empty and muffled, save the sound of the wind. It must've been something back in the day, surrounded by wrought iron (now rusting), and a big old stone fountain in the middle, drained dry for the season. Inside, the lobby is little more than a hallway that the property management keeps in better shape than the apartments, making some attempt at a good first impression. But they take cash, barely research references, the water pressure is decent and the place comes furnished. It works fine for Jensen's needs.
He takes the stairs to the third floor. Doesn't trust the ramshackle elevator. No one's awake, unsurprisingly.
Jensen unlocks his door and steps inside, but his boot kicks a piece of paper that's been stuffed past the slipshod weatherstripping. Again. Fourth note in the past month and a half. Same brown paper. Same handwriting. He knows he should be thoroughly unnerved by the fact he has a secret admirer who leaves creepy love letters when he's out, and seems to know his general habits, and the ink is a deliciously sanguine color. But the notes aren't exactly intimidating. The first one simply said “Hi” with a smiley face dotting the 'i'. The second one read, “Hope you have a nice nite”. The third, “Happy Hump Day”.
Jensen locks the door behind himself and takes a moment to ensure he's alone, due diligence and all. Satisfied, he kicks off his boots and hangs up his coat without turning on the lights. The snow reflects enough ambient glow for his nocturnal vision and paints lines from the fire escape across the rug. Plopping down on the saggy gray couch by the window, he puts his stocking feet on the coffee table and lifts the note to his nose. It's the same scent as all the times before, dense and metallic. Opening the note, it's just a simply drawn, slightly smudged heart. Valentine's Day is next weekend. His stalker is a tad early.
The sort of person who gifts strange men with sugary sentiment should get serious help, no question, especially since Jensen can't exactly reciprocate in a prudent fashion. But Jensen is perhaps more alarmed by his own sense of calm where foreboding should be, whispering to him of calamity on the horizon. He's more disconcerted by an aging elevator than his coyly ominous pen pal.
Setting the note on his knee, he slips his cellphone from a pocket and dials up Danneel. She won't answer because she has a normal, sane, day job and is almost certainly asleep, but she will keep Jensen's secrets safe in exchange for the same. She's older than she looks, and the measures she takes to remain beautiful—among other mortality-defying stunts—would get her hanged or drowned or whatever they did to witches these days.
“Hey, Dani, how's my favorite Slytherin?” Jensen says, after her coquettish voicemail message. “Got a favor to ask. How are you at locator spells? I even have a little … organic matter from the person in question, to sweeten the pot. No rush. Call me back when you get a chance. A plus tard, ma belle.”
Jensen smiles to himself in the dark and sets the phone down on the arm of the couch. Interesting, he thinks, for the mouse to be wooing the cat.
As sunset sinks behind the buildings like a bruise darkening into rot, Jensen drifts his eyes open, knowing instinctively when it's time to rise and pretend to be alive. He scrapes his hands through his hair. Yawning from habit, he sits up in bed and lingers there to listen to his neighbors laughing together over a late dinner. Same as yesterday and the day before. But tonight, Jensen feels a shift in the air: a disquiet, a squirm in his belly that isn't hunger. It's been creeping up for months despite him shooing it aside, calling it a phase or a mood or a bother. Ennui, again, like yesterday and the day before..
It's becoming progressively, uncomfortably more clear, however, that this isn't that.
The wooden floor is cool and smooth beneath his feet as he slips into a robe, snugging the belt about his waist. He looks the same as the moment he was turned, trim but sturdy, the same stubble and hair that he has to clipper a bit each night to feel contemporary. He wonders if there will ever come a time when muttonchops return to fashion. The 70's were almost there, so close.
His neighbors, Kim and Brianna, are talking animatedly, and he leans against their shared wall, listening. One is an actress and the other, a singer, as well as an UberEats delivery driver and a receptionist somewhere downtown. One has an ex-husband, and they share a canary. But some nights they're very quiet and there's a warmth emanating from the apartment. Soft whispers and the susurrus of fabric that even Jensen can barely parse.
He turns his head with a sigh and pushes off the wall to head towards the living room. The hallway leading to the front door sits empty, except for his boots and a drop of disappointment. Scooping up his phone from the arm of the couch, he quirks a brow at the tiny voicemail symbol in the corner and hits the proper button, continuing on to the kitchen to fill up a pitcher with water for his plant.
“You only call me when you want something, Lestat,” comes Danneel's deceptive, little-girl voice, but she also sounds amused. “So. You got your pretty eye on someone? Dinner or date, hmm? Love to help you, Jen, but I'm all booked up with the usual pre-Valentine's charms and magicks, you know the drill. I make a killing this time of year,” she adds with a chuckle. “Hit me up next week. Stop by the shop if you wanna. Kisses, baby.”
Jensen waters his potted rosemary shrub and runs a hand across the spikes. It's the only thing that seems to survive his notably un-green thumb, and the scent lifts his spirits a touch. You outlast nearly everything around you, when you're already dead. Totally expected, of course, his Kind's version of normal, but tonight he gets a prickle in his sinuses, in the corners of his eyes ... a deep-seated, self-pitying hollow.
Clouds have rolled in and obscured the moon. Fitting. And he wonders if maybe it's time to move on, go somewhere dry and arid, where the moon will always rise and look down upon him like a kindly guardian. But the moon is never any different, hidden behind clouds or not. It's the same over the Mohave as it is over Paris as it is over middle America. If something has changed, it's not the moon. Jensen pinches the bridge of his nose, blinks back the sentimentality, and thinks maybe he could use the company of a club full of warm, liquored-up bodies. Grab dinner. Feel a pulse for five hot minutes.
Which is what he does, and the peril of it is the buzz of vodka-laden blood and the razor thin slice of a Cheshire moon, finally visible between the clouds as they roil behind the telephone wires and tall buildings.
He's feeling unsettled and hair-trigger, almost smiling with all his teeth—even the sharp ones—at a couple who walks past, arm in arm, with their lattes and retro James Dean glasses and skinny jeans. One of them smells like the store that sells those glitter-filled hand-made, no-animal-testing bath bombs. Overly sweet and cloying. Jensen wants to make them startle, watch all the color drain from their cheeks, but he doesn't. He bites the inside of his cheek instead and keeps stalking the sidewalks. He knows where he'll wind up. It's foolish, but he knows.
As he nears the diner, he can hear the crowd before he sees it. The din drags Jensen to a stop outside the edge of the front window; he can't go in, not like this. The dining room is teeming with a young, rowdy clientele, lots of dyed hair and slogan t-shirts. Looks like they might be a band and its entourage. Jared stands out, a head taller, hustling from one side of the counter to the other with an impressive number of plastic pint glasses balanced in each hand. Plates are gathering at the serving hatch, and Mitch squints at the line of paper slips Jared has clipped to the top of it.
Jensen stares into the room, fingers lightly touching the window. It's all so … vital. Not like the club earlier in the evening, where the patrons were obscured by shadows and strobing lights, little more than effigies of people. Here, he can see all their faces and the glint of their piercings, laughing and hanging off each other in casual intimacy. Jared grins alongside, shakes his hair out of his eyes, nods to a request. Fishes a bottle of ketchup from under the counter and gives it a shove to the far end. He turns towards the kitchen and rifles through a stack of receipts, pockets one in his apron, and collects plates for delivery. His shoulder blades work in quick, precise slides around a dark spot of sweat between them. Jensen smudges away grime so he can see more clearly.
A curl of want boils to the surface. The discontent, which has been hazy and anonymous, becomes intolerably clear. He's done with himself, with his noble martyrdom. The tip of his tongue prods an incisor and he draws blood. Immortality has no fucking value if you refuse to fucking live. He drags his blunt nails across the glass, cold and slick, as the door to the diner flies open. Several bodies exit, fishing for their cigarettes.
They fire up, sharing a lighter, smoke and conversation escaping their mouths. Jensen pays no attention to their words, just watches their lips move. Leans on the building, shoves his hands in his pockets. Eventually, one looks up and gives him an unbothered nod. They drop the last of their cigarettes and crush them underfoot before returning to the diner, oblivious to the hair's breadth of danger not twenty feet away. Jensen's nailed in place, stuck like a man holding a live wire, incapable of releasing it. Thrumming, hurting. He closes his eyes, grinds his teeth until they ache. In a heroic jolt of better judgment, he turns on his heel and walks away.
The facsimile of a heartbeat pounds in his ears.
At this, he freezes. Pivots.
Jared is standing where the smokers once were, just outside the door, breath steaming in the cold. “Aren't you gonna come in?”
Jensen swallows back the taste of metal. “Too crowded.”
“Oh, sorry,” Jared says, his expression slipping into disappointment.
“Not your fault,” Jensen manages, with a laugh.
“Come back later?”
“I might.” He won't. He doesn't dare. “'Night, Jared.”
Jared hesitates, then waves and darts back inside.
Jensen doesn't think he's ever given Jared his name.
He hasn't left the apartment in days, in nights. He keeps the monster at bay with sips of stolen, stale type O, but it's quickly getting to the point where he must venture out, before any degree of control is completely lost.
Whether it's deliberate or not, he dresses in dark colors, scarf to boots, even though it makes his pallor all the more obvious. It somehow humors the ravening part of him.
His neighbor, Kim, is coming home with an armful of blush roses for her girlfriend; under other circumstances, Jensen might be charmed but tonight he finds it saccharine. They exchange nods as they pass in the hallway, neither compelled to speak.
As he leaves his building, the air stinks like blood. Everything smells of blood. The snow has melted, the moon is barely risen, and night smothers the courtyard, disguising its shabbiness with guile. A cat mewls off behind the dry stone fountain. Jensen ignores it, for its own good.
He walks the blocks toward the popular strip, and it dawns on him that there are more people out than the norm, more couples, more trite flower peddlers, and the bars are full and the cafes have lines out their cozy wooden doors. It's Valentine's Day. he remembers, with disdain. This complicates matters. Maybe he'll catch a loner from the herd, someone who's looking for Mr. Right Now and nothing more, and maybe they'll be drinking away their loneliness and less likely to pay attention to that klaxon of warning in the back of their brain. But there are simply too many eyes out in the world this evening, and the likelihood that he'll find a secret place to drag his meal is slim to none. What a goddamned hassle. Jensen is exhausted of the game already.
A coiffed white dog, with humiliating pink bows on its ears, snarls at him as he passes; the owners fall over themselves in apology.
“Hey, I don't blame 'em,” Jensen says dryly, but imagines snapping its stringy neck.
He wanders away from the hubbub of the main drag to a less-traveled avenue. From a darkened doorway, a busker with an acoustic guitar wails a folked-up indie version of “God Only Knows”. It's an unlikely spot to set up shop, given the lessened foot traffic, but the singer's voice echoes off the brick walls and the song ricochets up into the night sky like a hymn, or a bullet, Jensen isn't sure which. He lingers to watch her, this choir of one, with her snarl of dirty blonde hair and plain coat. For a minute, maybe two, it's just him, and her. And her voice, lifting heavenward. He likes the song, loves it, even, though he's long since stopped believing in anything resembling God. He's not afraid of damnation; he's thwarted it before and he'll do it again. It's the beauty of her breathy upper register on the chorus—and his own caprice—that saves her life. Tossing her a few coins, he fakes a smile and moves along.
Cutting through an alley or three, of course he bottoms out onto a familiar street just beyond a familiar diner, some sort of laughable magnetism pulling him here.
Because of the holiday, it's packed again, but this time Jensen doesn't let that stop him. He glares into the picture window as he crosses the front of The Grill Diner, yanks open the door. The heat and noise and grease hits him like a brick. Pushing between people and stools, he tries to snag the attention of the waitress behind the counter. Jensen's never seen her before, and he doesn't much care that she's busy when he leans in and raises his voice.
The girl gives him a side-glance.
“Lindsey,” Jensen says more loudly, per her plastic name tag.
She scowls, makes like she wants to snap at him but thinks better of it. “Be right with—”
Huffing, she drops a handful of napkins in front of a guest. “No-call no-show. Filling in for him. Now, I've really gotta—”
Jensen backs away before she finishes. He stands there amid the warm jostle of bodies, beyond annoyed, but he's come this far; in for a penny, in for the whole fucking pound. He stares through the serving hatch, finds Mitch sweating over the grill, and waits until he catches his eye.
“Where's the kid?” Jensen has circled back to the kitchen entrance past the bathroom, where the staff hangs their coats and stores the big yellow mop bucket.
“I can't tell you that.”
“Yeah, you can. I know you can.”
“You're worried about him, I can tell. He never pulls this shit. He might be late, but he never just bails.”
“I don’t know you from Adam. What if you’re—”
Mitch pauses long enough to curl his lip and grunt, gesturing with a gummy spatula. “Fine, goddammit. You didn't hear it from me, but he might live in that dump at the corner of Summit and Webster.”
Within walking distance. Good. “Thanks.”
“Hey. You’ll, uh, you’ll let me know if the little shit's got a good excuse, right?”
“Sure, you bet.” Jensen nods and heads out.
He walks briskly down the sidewalks, as the area gets tighter and shabbier and less populated by holiday partiers. The neighborhood begins to feel malignant, which might simply be a function of his own prejudices, or it may well be his finely honed predator's instincts. Hunting grounds.
He rounds the corner of Summit, and there sits a house that he’s probably passed a dozen times before but never noticed, in the way you choose to pretend something unappealing doesn’t exist. Turn of the century, it was likely impressive in its day, large and looming, but has since been haphazardly parceled off into multiple apartments accessible from any side, a porch here, a staircase there. Shingles flake off the exterior like scabs. Some of the windows are boarded up but others glow behind hung sheets, lit from within. Jensen begins checking mailboxes for names, moving from stoop to stoop, and a figure peeks around a ratty lace curtain to follow his progress. A desiccated old woman with a sunken, toothless mouth. Staring. He stares back, ponders an attempt to solicit information, but she's gone before he can formulate a story.
Moving to the next porch, he finally finds a crooked mailbox belonging to one J. Padalecki, in unit #4, which is apparently up a short set of narrow, interior stairs. They groan as he climbs them, the lights guttering, and if it weren't February, the hall would probably smell of all the very worst parts of humanity.
The door at the dead end has been gouged and scraped and repainted a dozen times around a tarnished, brass “4”. Jensen raps lightly with one gloved knuckle, leaning in to listen. Nothing but the tinny, distant sounds of a television somewhere else in the building. He tries the knob; it's locked up tight.
His choices are simple: give up or get in, which is really no choice at all. He glances around for security cameras, expectedly finding none, but catches a flicker of movement at the foot of the stairs. A glimpse of frizzy, white hair. The figure pulls back as soon as Jensen turns.
He creeps back down the stairs and, whiplash-quick, bolts around the corner to grab the old woman by her moth-eaten robe, her slippered feet nearly going out from under her in shock.
“I got a gun, fucker!” she squawks, which isn't a lie; she has it clasped in one shaking claw but it does her no good, as Jensen wrenches it away with a single motion. Her eyes, wide and rheumy, shine like raw eggs, and the stink of mothballs and morbidity wafts off her in a puff. She has three months left, maybe half a year if she's goddamned lucky, Jensen knows as surely as he knows his own name. Death is a language he speaks well.
He's in no mood for this, not even a little, so he drags her back to her apartment in a bundle of dangling arms and legs, and sees to it that she causes him no more inconvenience this evening. Or ever. She tastes stale, almost curdled, but he's a thrifty fiend and there's no sense in wasting the opportunity. A tin of Altoids is sitting on the TV tray next to her recliner, and the Curiously Strong Mint™ helps to purge the taste of her off his tongue.
Returning to Jared's door, it takes but a few shoves with a firm shoulder to splinter the dry-rotted frame doing a piss-poor job at securing a deadbolt. He quickly steps inside. In this neighborhood, the chance that anyone will call the cops is slim, but he closes the door behind, to be safe.
It's nearly pitch black and smells faintly of weed, the only light coming from a sliver in the blinds. Jensen risks flipping a switch, which turns on a naked bulb over what turns out to be the kitchen. Plenty bright, though, as the entire place is one whole room, plus a bath. Chips and cracks mar the plaster, and an ancient, threadbare carpet covers the floor.
For the amount of stuff squirreled into the studio, the order of it surprises Jensen. The kitchenette is little more than a clean, two-burner stovetop sitting atop a mini-fridge; Jared must do his dishes in the bathtub as there isn't a sink. A single bed, unmade, is tucked into a corner, but no piles of clothes or shoes or empty food wrappers. In fact, Jared has a bin for recycling, half-full of beer and Chef Boyardee cans. Jensen steps in farther, turns slowly, scanning the place. It's tidy. The walls have a few creased art prints tacked to them—painters Jensen recognizes as les Fauves—and rows of army men, pinned up like butterflies in a natural history exhibit. The dresser beside the bed is painted some unnameable color, and on it sits a handful of small, bleached animal skulls and a box of off-brand tissues.
If Jensen had to guess, Jared's been on his own for a while. He's learned to value cleanliness and the small free things that bring … comfort? Sure, he goes with that. No family photos in cheap dime-store frames, though, or trophies from school track meets. Jensen finds himself smiling over this, not that he should feel pleased at Jared's lack of a support system, but it makes the scenario that lives in his brain that much simpler. Plausible deniability, should Jensen choose to admit to himself that maybe, just maybe, he's feeling something more than benign affection for this fucking kid.
Which, really, it's pretty much unquestionable at this point. Jensen walks to the dresser and runs a finger across the dustless surface. The gnawing in his gut that he'd chalked up to playing the Good Boy for far too long … is proving to be a gravitational shift of his soul, providing he still has one. A needy urge, to own and shepherd and share. For his world to be something different, bigger, than what it is. He opens the top drawer and sees sheets of brown craft paper, generic #2 pencils, cotton swabs, and an X-Acto knife wiped clean of anything telltale. It's not like Jensen didn't suspect it all along, more like he refused to admit what was sitting right under his nose. Because the implications are a nuisance and indocile, and they rock his equilibrium.
He picks up a paper scrap, clumsy what with his gloves, and flattens it on the dresser's surface. A lop-sided heart has been cut out of the middle; after all, it is Valentine's Day. But Jared's finished handiwork isn't with the rest of the supplies. A scowl pulls at the edges of Jensen's mouth. He sweeps the paper back into the drawer and slams it shut. He's already moving out of the room as he's mentally mapping the path from Jared's tenement to his own apartment.
Jensen's fairly certain he's never been this annoyed before, though there have been instances that came close and there could be a damned good reason for it, this time. He moves at a sharp clip, scanning the shadows for Jared, moving down the side streets and alleys like a shark through deep, still water. It's all tunnel-visioned, blurry foreboding. Even though he knows full well weird, preternatural things exist (because he is one, for Christ's sake), Jensen usually half-scoffed at the whole notion of intuition, mojo, second-sight or whatever the fuck, but right now, it's eating at his logic centers with stupid urgency.
He finds nothing.
Slowing, he crosses the gates to his building's courtyard and stops, not to catch his breath but to steady himself, breathe in the familiar smells of the yard and settle the noise in his brain. Plan his next move. He notices it this time, the metallic aftertaste that was there earlier but ignored, buried beneath disbelief and the city grime. The hairs on his nape bristle. Jensen walks carefully, observantly, up the walk to the front door, searching the dark nooks where the streetlights don't reach.
Now that he's looking, really looking, he sees some small lump sticking out from behind the old stone fountain, where he'd heard the feral cat earlier. Which, as realization sinks in, wasn't a cat at all. As he rounds the fountain, he finds that the lump is a boot, attached to a leg, attached to a body, slumped against the pock-marked base. Tall, slender, bowed head of unruly hair and far too much blood. Jared's pockets have been turned out and emptied, and strewn across the ground are the things the mugger didn't see fit to take. Tictacs, a smattering of coins, a brown-paper heart.
“Jesus, kid, what the fuck,” Jensen murmurs.
He whirls a glance around the courtyard for witnesses, but doesn't waste another second as he grabs one of Jared's arms and pulls him forward, to tuck a shoulder under and hoist him up, slinging Jared over his back like a sack of feed. The kid's gangly, and it makes the stunt a clusterfuck of dangling arms and legs, so much so Jensen dares to take the death-trap elevator up. No way he'd be able to navigate the stairs like this. There's probably a blood trail, Jensen's well aware. He'll deal with it later, if there is a later.
Kicking in his apartment door, he carries Jared to the couch; it's the closest soft place to put him and assess the damage, but not before drawing the drapes. By moonlight, blood loses all hue and looks black, but it blooms into a bright, syrupy red by lamplight. Head wounds bleed like a bitch. Jared's hair is soaked, and it's seeping into the couch which means he's still bleeding and that's a good thing. Good, in that dead bodies don't bleed. Jensen knows.
“Jared. Jared,” Jensen says urgently, throwing open the kid's coat, rubbing a knuckle against his breastbone. He's bathed in icy sweat, lips almost as pale as the rest of him. And there's more blood, coming from somewhere around the waistband of his jeans, leeching into his t-shirt and spreading up his side.
He rocks under Jensen's hand, mouth slack.
“Come on, Jared. Open your eyes, look at me.” Jensen wants to see what color hazel they are today, what his pupils are doing. If there's pain or recognition in his gaze. “If you don't open your eyes, I'm going to have to force you … but it'll make me angry and you won't like me when I'm angry. Come on, kid, what show is that from? You remember?” Jensen laughs, a little manic. “You're probably not even old enough. Jared. Jared. Wake up.”
There's no movement except whatever Jensen is doing, kneeling into the couch. He pulls off a glove with his teeth and flips up one of Jared's eyelids, finding the pupil big and black. The other pupil, when Jensen checks, is a pinprick. He's no medical professional but this is clearly a problem. Jared is still breathing but there's something flighty and erratic about it, and up-close, his teeth are smeared with the thinnest slick of pink.
Jensen yanks up Jared's sopping t-shirt and lifts him a bit, which at least elicits a moan. A gaping cut, like a killer's smile, opens up in Jared's side and blood vomits out. It drips and pools on the wooden floor, under Jensen's knees. A killing wound, Jensen knows. He's extraordinarily good at doing damage, that's the easy part; fixing it, not so much. He puts his hand on the wound and blood floods out between his fingers. The stink of it fills the room, fills his nose and his unbidden fears, but Jensen tears himself away from that because if he doesn't, there will be only one outcome. Jared deserves a choice, he doesn't deserve the way Jensen was dragged into unlife, by the roots of his hair and a murder in the night.
Jared moans again and his eyelids flicker. His brow contracts with pain as he seems to want to focus, but he can't. His glance wanders, looking to land on something, anything, before skittering away again.
“Hey, get it together, you pain in my ass,” Jensen says, hushed, forcing Jared's attention. Demanding. It works, at least briefly. Jared centers on Jensen's face, blinking. A smile pushes to the surface.
“That's my boy.” Jensen smiles back, swipes a palm across Jared's clammy forehead, brushing away tangles.
Jared opens his mouth to speak, and blood rivers out. His eyes roll back, showing nothing but white.
“NO.” Jensen smacks Jared's cheek, hard enough to cut the quiet with a crack, but he doesn't even get a moan this time. Jared's hand flops off the edge of the couch. “God damn it, Don't make me do this. I don't want this. I don't—”
Even as he says it, he knows he's a liar.
Jensen stares wildly around the apartment, at its plain beige walls and beige curtains and solitary plant, and then the sharp, unmoving edge of Jared's jaw.
“I'm. I'm sorry.” Another lie. Jensen drops down on Jared's bloody mouth, with all his teeth and tongue. Jared is slack, barely warm, but the taste of him is full of life and heat and the very things Jensen should feel guilty about, but he is not, in truth, sorry. He bites his own tongue and weird, stagnant blood mixes with Jared's. Never breaking that sacred seal, Jensen tips back Jared's skull, clearing his airways as though offering CPR—the kiss of life, isn't that what they call it?—and he prays the mingled blood will run down Jared's throat, not just out the sides of his mouth. He waits, and bleeds, until his knees cramp.
When he lifts his mouth, there's blood and spittle stringing in thick beads. “Come on come on, swallow, come on.”
Jensen presses to Jared's cheek, whispers in his ear. He's got a hand set on Jared's chest, trying desperately to find a heart beat. Or not. This is far from an exact science and in fact, it's mostly magic; the number of times Jensen has tried this can be counted on a single hand. All but one died. Forever dead. And that poor creature fell prey to madness and flames and a stake, during more superstitious and fearful times. Jensen swore he'd never make that mistake again. And yet.
A horrible silence settles over the apartment, save the ebbing plunk-plunk-plunk of blood dripping onto the floor. Taking Jared's chin gently in his hand, he cants the kid's head to one side. Stares at the tendons and simple tattoo of a star and the divot where the carotid should be fluttering. It isn't. Jensen squeezes his eyes shut, blurring with tears he hasn't shed in decades. His lips are sticky with their shared blood.
The silence takes on a loaded tangibility, suffocating. Jensen rocks back on his heel, his boots sopping in red. He stands up and paces, leaving tracks. Tears at his hair. Kicks the fucking coffee table, which splinters into two pieces and skids across the room. He bites back a scream.
Now, he has to leave. Jensen masochistically lets himself think of those days again, when he'd tried to bring company into this possessed existence, and he remembers every one of the bodies he's buried. Burned. Weighted and dropped into a river. He'll steal a car, take Jared to the countryside at the edge of town and chisel a grave from the frozen earth. Jensen feels sick for a moment, truly nauseous. He is, well and truly, sorry after all.
It won't be long 'til dawn. He doesn't have time to squander; there will be plenty of opportunity to mourn when he's far from this miserable place. Jensen wills himself into action, grief hanging at the back of his throat. There's a thick quilt on the bed and he'll use that to swaddle Jared's body. God, he's just a body now. Jensen takes a deep breath to keep from throwing up.
He peels back the quilt from his bed, and stuffs his pockets full of anything that might have identifying information, not that he'll be “Jensen Ackles” in the next town he lands, but it's habit. He puts the silly brown-paper notes Jared made for him in his breast pocket, to remain unbent. Close to his unbeating heart. The blood on his face is tightening as it dries, and he scrubs a hand across his mouth. He wants to bite his knuckles until he can't feel the pain anymore, but he knows that will never happen. He bundles the quilt in his arms and turns around.
Jared is standing in the doorway. Unsteady, backlit by the glow from the living room.
Jensen drops the quilt.
“W-what happened?” Jared's face is illegible under all the blood, eyes bright against it, half a cracked smile that doesn't read as humor.
“Died? Did I … die, Jensen?” The words are fragile, like he has to shove whispers out of his lungs to make his voice work.
Jensen can barely nod.
With a small, contemplative noise, Jared looks down at the ruined t-shirt stuck to his chest. He plucks at the stiffening fabric, stares at his trembling fingers.
The air sits thick between them, like the dark itself has structure, density, that swallows up all the living sounds of the building. Jared looks up and locks eyes with Jensen, blinks long and slow. And a grin flickers incandescently into being. From that one gesture, all the relief spills out.
Jensen crosses the room in two strides, reaching out to cradle Jared's face in his half-gloved hands, thumbs brushing across the kid's cheekbones with incredulity. “How did you … ?”
“I saw you. Accidentally caught you, one night. Red-handed.” Jared curls close, clutching Jensen's coat.
“And here I thought I was being so careful.”
“You really weren't.”
They memorize this moment in the lines of each others' faces, before Jared tips forward and brushes his lips across Jensen's, feather-soft.
Suddenly, they're kissing, licking the drying blood, laughing. Baring teeth.